Pre-Planning Proves a Factor In Controlling Cannery Fire

Pre-Planning Proves a Factor In Controlling Cannery Fire

Area Fire Fighters are Handicapped by Building Hazards and Delayed Alarm

Editor’s note: The editors are indebted to Fire Chief Gregory E. Teaby, Monterey, Calif., Fire Department, and the Pacific Fire Rating Bureau, for the information upon which this Special Report is based. Acknowledgment is also made of the excellent photographs of the fire by Wm. L. Morgan, Monterey Fire Department photographer, who arrived at the scene about the same time as the first fire company. While this fire occurred approximately a year ago the lessons which it presented will prove useful and interesting to the fire service.

GENERALLY, food packing plants and canneries are considered poor risks by insurance underwriters. Construction is usually combustible and sub-standard, measured by fire safey viewpoints; location is in most cases somewhat removed from municipal fire protection facilities and plant fire protection such as fire detection, alarm transmission and automatic sprinklers is lacking.

In the manufacturing classification, according to the N.F.P.A.’s Handbook of Fire Protection, packing plants are topped only by flour mills and elevators, metal workers, and wood workers, in fire losses (out of 28,800 fires with total loss of $79 million, there were 800 in this group, in which losses aggregated $1,640,000.)

In considering fires in this category it is well to bear in mind two other important facts: a high percentage of fires in packing plants and canneries result in total loss and, secondly, the actual economic loss in such fires is much greater than is indicated by the actual property dollar loss in plant and contents. That is particularly true in times like the present, when the nation is at war and is stockpiling food products.

Overhead passage-way collapses at Monterey cannery fire. Firemen were forced to use hand lines while operating on railroad right-of-way, to prevent involvement of hazardous oil tanks and other exposures.

Photo by William L. Morgan

Involvement of Westgate-Sun Harbor Packing plant, Monterey, Cal., when fire extended over railroad right-of-way. Picture was taken before water was applied.

Photo by william L. Morgan

The serious fire in the Westgate-Sun Harbor Packing Company, Monterey, Calif., is a case in point.


The company is a national concern, the Monterey plant being used to can fish and produce fish meal and fish oil. At the time of the fire the tuna season was about over and the warehouse was full of canned fish awaiting shipment. No fish had been packed for several days prior to the fire because the fishing fleet had been held in the harbor by bad weather. Warehouse operations were conducted the day before the fire.

The Monterey plant consisted of the cannery, located at 758 Ocean View Ave. (see diagram), a large warehouse 60 feet west across the street at 757 Ocean View, and a second warehouse 55 feet west thereof, across the Southern Pacific right-of-way, at 750 Wave Ave. As shown on the diagram, the three structures were connected at the second story level by enclosed passageways.

The cannery at 758 Ocean View was a lk2-story corrugated iron structure with composition roof, and first story floor area of 51,000 square feet. This was not involved in the fire. The warehouse at 757 Ocean View was a 2-story corrugated iron structure, composition roof on wood sheating, and a first floor area of 20,400 square feet. The exterior walls were corrugated iron on 2-in. x 6-in. studding. The first floor was concrete, the second was 1-in. T & G surfaced with diagonal-laid 1-in. x 6-in. planking, all supported by 3-in. x 12-in. joists and massive wood columns and beams. An open stairway near the watchman’s room connected the two stories. Open chutes also cut the second story floor. Most of the building was open construction. A single thickness 1-in. board and 2-in. x 4-in. stud partition cut off the north 30-ft. section of the main floor, which section was occupied by the Universal Canning Machine Co. A similiar partition cut off a small storage room, used as a watchman’s headquarters the night before the fire. Electric wiring was in conduit.

The passageway east, across Ocean Ave. to the cannery, was 12-ft. wide and had 1-in. T & G floor, corrugated sides on a diagonal wood truss framework, and a composition roof on wood sheathing. A manually operated, single thickness, sheet metal door at the cannery end of the passageway served as a draft stop. Draft stop boards were also placed on the conveyor when it was not in operation. The door was closed and draft boards put in place prior to the discovery of the fire. Neither the door nor the boards had any appreciable value to check passage of heat, but they did cut off draft and, according to the Rating Bureau, probably saved the cannery.

Delayed alarm resulted in involvement of two warehouses in Westgate-Sun Harbor plant fire. Nevertheless, firemen prevented involvement of exposures seen in this picture, taken before water was started.

Photo by William L. Morgan

The passageway west over the Southern Pacific Railroad right-of-way to the warehouse, at 750 Wave St., was similar in construction to the one across Ocean View, but did not have draft stop door and the passageway served as a funnel to carry the fire across the 55-ft. open space (see picture). This passageway was destroyed by fire.

The property at 757 Ocean View was used largely for warehousing canned fish. Some cans were packed in paper cartons, some tiered on wooden platforms. Paper cartons, labels and supplies were also stored. An electric power grinder was installed in the building. Fish meal blown from the main building in a metal pipe, was ground in 757 Ocean View and then blown in a metal pipe to 750 Wave, where it was sacked and stored. This process reportedly had not been in use for some time prior to the fire. The machine shop of the Universal Canning Co. did repair work to cannery machinery and was not involved in the fire, although it did suffer water damage.

The warehouse at 750 Wave St. was a 2-story, corrugated iron structure, with first floor area of 8,075 square feet. It was similar in construction to 757 Ocean View, except that the north wall was frame stucco and the second floor joists were 2-in. x 12-in. The first floor was used for storage of fish meal in paper sacks and fish oil in large metal tanks. Three of these tanks were on the main floor and formed part of the exterior wall of the building. Eight tanks were on the mezzanine. The second story was used for sacking fish meal and storage of supplies.

It was noticeable there were no fire detection devices in the building, and no standard watchman and clock service. An employee with previous watchman experience was assigned to night watch duty several weeks before the fire. He punched a time clock when he went on and off duty but did not carry a watchman’s clock on tours of the plant. His small office on the main floor of 757 Ocean View was heated with a U. L. portable electric heater.

Cause and Description ot Fire

The fire is believed to have started in the watchman’s headquarters in the first story of 757 Ocean View. Front here it burned through the second floor above the office, spreading through the second story ceiling. It was further aided by the nearby open stairway to involve the entire second story, from which it communicated to the enclosed second story passageway to 750 Wave St.

The watchman, who was the last person known to be in the building, could give no explanation for the fire. Investigators consider the cause might have been either discarded smoking materials or ignition of materials in contact with the electric heater. An unexplained detail is the discovery of a discharged chemical extinguisher, found later near the watchman’s headquarters.

The watchman reportedly checked out at 6:34 A.M., and the first alarm was received by the fire department at 7:14 P.M. According to reliable witnesses, smoke was visible for a distance of several miles soon after 6:45 A.M. As freight trains and industrial stacks sometimes produce heavy smoke in the vicinity, none of these early witnesses saw fit to turn in an alarm. Nor were any close enough to identify the smoke as that of this fire.

Pumping engine and hose line arrangements at the Westgate-Sun Harbor warehouse fire. Dots show burned area.

A box and a telephone alarm were received almost simultaneously by the department, and the equipment from the fire station nearest the plant responded promptly, to find on arrival the upper floors of both warehouses involved and burning fiercely. A general alarm was turned in at 7:16 A.M., to which all the Monterey equipment responded and which called out off-shift men. This set in motion, also a pre-arranged mutual aid plan which brought fire departments in the vicinity into action.

Fire officials were fully aware of the hazard created not only by the Westgate-Sun Harbor plant, but the congested area of fish canneries in which it was located. They had weighed the possibilities of a serious fire in the area and planned accordingly. Therefore the mutual aid response was prompt, and efficient, part of the responding outside forces reporting direct to the fire and others covering-in, at Monterey fire stations.

Fire Chief Gregory Teaby soon had adequate equipment and manpower at his disposal and he deployed his forces to confine the fire by surrounding all sides of the two burning buildings. His assistants were assigned sectors of operation and heavy streams were brought to action as rapidly as possible.

Two trucks, equipped with 1 3/4 in. turrets were stationed on Ocean View Ave. so they could direct heavy streams onto the fire. The turret pipes were each fed by three 2 1/2-in. lines. At 7:45 A.M. a special call was made for a Pacific Grove truck equipped with a 1 3/4 in. turret. This was fed by two 2 1/2-in. lines. Sixteen single 2 1/2-in. lines were also laid, together with two 1 1/2-in. lines. The Monterey forces used 1 1/4-in. tips on its lines, and the other departments used 1-in. or 1 1/8-in. In addition, two 2 1/2-in. lines were siamesed to the 1 1/2-in. lines.

No delay should be lost in salvaging canned foodstuffs. Here canned fish is being salvaged from top floor ruins of main Westgate-Sun Harbor warehouse.

Photo by William L. Morgan

Packing plant fires may call for heavy streams like this. Turret stream, fed by three 2 1/2-inch lines, covering lower side of main Westgate-Sun Harbor warehouse at costly fire.

Photo by William L. Morgan

As soon as a line could be stretched, firemen entered the second story of the cannery by ladder, and fought the fire that had entered at second story level via the enclosed passageway to the warehouse at 757 Ocean. Aided by the enclosed draft ston door, which had slowed down the progress of the fire, the crew was able to hold the fire at that critical point. Later investigation disclosed that actual combustion had occurred along about two-thirds of the length of the passageway. This was saved.

Effective work of fire fighters also prevented extension of the blaze to other exposures, some only a few feet away. Owing to the heat and complete involvement of the two buildings however, men were unable to enter either structure; in fact, they had difficulty getting some hand lines into close operation on the blaze.

Both buildings were practically destroyed. Second story walls were consumed or damaged beyond repair. Most of the second story floors were consumed, as were first floor walls. The entire stock of both warehouses was involved either by fire, water or smoke damage. Some salvage, however, of contents was effected by Underwriters Salvage Company. The loss originally estimated at $1,220,000 was later revised to $985,000.

Chronology of Alarms and Response

7:14 A.M. First alarm.

7:16 A.M. General alarm.

7:45 A.M. Special Call, Pacific Grove, one pumper with turret.

Mutual aid units responding on the general alarm were not logged in at the fire, but all stations were close and probably responded prior to 7:30 A.M.

Companies in action were as follows:

1000 GPM Pumper, Monterey (A) (on diagram)

1250 GPM Pumper, Monterey (B) 750 GPM Pumper, Pacific Grove (C)

750 GPM Pumper, Monterey (D)

1250 GPM Pumper, Monterey (E)

1000 GPM Pumper, Navy Line School (F)

750 GPM Pumper, Pacific Grove (G)

1250 GPM Pumper, Monterey (H) 750 GPM Pumper, Navy Air

Station Hose Wagon, Monterey 750 GPM Pumper, Fort Ord (Pump not used)

Weather at the time was favorable for fire fighters. Humidity was 55% Temperature 35° F., wind 3 m.p.h. from East.

(Continued on page 251)

Pre-Planning Proves a Factor in Controlling Cannery Fire

(Continued from page 200)

Water supply was adequate; flow tests the day of the fire made from two hydrants simultaneously showed Static 112 pounds; Residual 90 pounds and Mow, 3953 gallons per minute. Probable maximum flow during the fire was about 6500 g.p.m., with pressure at intake of pumpers at 50 pounds.

Conclusions and Recommendations

We quote from the conclusions of the Pacific Fire Rating Bureau:

The combined fire departments did a fine piece of work. Monterey Cannery Row has long been viewed with approhension by insurance interests and fire department executives. The fire of December 8 involved two buildings before the first department reached the scene and many of the elements for a conflagration were present. Weather conditions were favorable to the firemen, but the fire was extinguished by prompt and skillful execution of well laid plans and courageous action on the part of personnel. Every firemen who fought the fire should feel a justifiable pride for his part in a difficult job well done. RECOMMENDATIONS:

  1. An approved fire detection system or standard watchman and clock service should be prrovided for all high value and/or large area locations.
  2. Standard automatic sprinkler systems should be installed in large area industrial and warehouse locations.
  3. Enclosed passageways between buildings should be provided with automatically operated draft stops at both ends of the passageway. Standard fire doors are recommended, but even sheet metal doors have value, as was proved in this fire.
  4. Vertical communications should be provided with doors equal in fire resistive property to the adjoining floors. An open stairway probably helped spread this fire.
  5. Maximum use of heavy stream appliances is recommended. Single hose streams are deflected by air currents or are thrown back by building walls.

Heavy streams penetrate billowing air and knock down light walls. Thus, water reaches the seat of the fire and is converted into steam, thereby producing the maximum quenching effect.

Wherever possible, turrets should be mounted on hose wagons or battery wagons should be used. If turrets are used on pumpers, the pumper must be attached to a hydrant right at the fire. Otherwise the pump is useless and the piece of equipment serves merely as a battery wagon. A turret mounted on a pumper working at a hydrant a block away from the fire has no value.

Portable deluge sets can be used in areas where turrets or battery wagons cannot be brought into play. At this fire, maximum damage occurred in areas that were covered by single hose i streams.

  1. An aerial ladder would have been very useful in this lire. Large-area buildings, even when low. are difficult to cover completely from the ground; but a heavy stream from the top of an aerial can shoot down into the center of a building.

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